The Scoop: 1967 unrated, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate and Jack MacGowran
Tagline: Who says Vampires are no laughing matter?
Summary Capsule: An aging vampire hunter and his apprentice are trapped in a castle with a vampire lord, a murderous hunchback, and a hot redhead. That… might balance out in my book. Tough call.
Drew’s Rating: It’s got to be tough being a well-coiffed dandy when you can’t see your reflection in the mirror. How does he know how much product to use?
Drew’s Review: When it comes to mixing film genres, a popular combo is always comedy and horror. It makes sense — humor serves to break the tension after a particularly gruesome scene, and there’s nothing like a good jolt of fear to turn that laugh into a scream. Sometimes this is executed well (Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead 2, Ginger Snaps), other times… not so much (Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood). But a theme of most comedy/horror movies is to ramp things up with both the laughs and the scares, aiming to provoke the most visceral reactions from audience members. It’s in this area that The Fearless Vampire Killers breaks the mold a bit. Like its brethren, it is a horror/comedy, but a much more subtle one in both components — maybe not surprising, considering it was directed by famed filmmaker/U.S. exile Roman Polanski.
The elderly Professor Abronsius (MacGowran) and his young apprentice Alfred (Polanski) have come to Transylvania in search of vampires to kill. Staying the night at a local inn, they find what they’re looking for when local vampire lord Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) abducts the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter Sarah (Tate). The dimwitted duo make their way to the Count’s castle in an effort to destroy him and rescue the girl, only to be welcomed as guests by von Krolock and his foppish son Herbert (Iain Quarrier), who shows more than a passing interest in Alfred. But when their not-terribly-competent efforts to destroy the vampires fail, the two are trapped in the castle on the eve of a grand ball, where dozens of bloodsuckers plan to dance, make merry, and feast upon Sarah and our hapless heroes. The odds are decidedly not in their favor, but true love and dumb luck will conquer all, right? Er… right?
In keeping with the subtlety I mentioned earlier, despite the best marketing efforts of MGM (see below), this is not a madcap farce. There is a good amount of humor, but most of it’s pretty subdued, exaggerated reactions and comical background details, stuff like that. Of course, that’s also good news for those of you (like me) who are big wusses about horror movies- there may be one truly scary moment in the entirety of TFVK (right near the end), and even that’s debatable. The film tries — successfully — to be more unsettling than out-and-out terrifying, as we watch two well-intentioned blunderers waste opportunities to accomplish their goal and get away safely, instead subjecting themselves to continued peril due solely to their own incompetence… which, bringing us full circle, is a major driver of the humor.
As far as what you can expect, the acting is good, but it’s the scenery and set design that really impress. This was fairly early in Polanski’s career, but clearly he was able to acquire some good financing, because everything looks fantastic. It’s almost worth watching the movie just for the backgrounds — from the ramshackle inn to the decaying grandeur of von Krolock’s castle, with its towers and buttresses and ballrooms, everything looks distinctly eastern European and (to my uneducated eye) quite authentic. Clearly Polanski didn’t cut corners or do things by halves, except I guess when it comes to asking for ID from the girl you’re seducing. (Hi-oh! Too soon?)
I don’t have much else to say about The Fearless Vampire Killers, but don’t take that as a criticism. I very much enjoyed the film, and it certainly qualifies as a cult classic and a good example of what constituted “horror” in the pre-Hammer days. It’s haunting and amusing more than it is scary and uproarious, so it won’t be up everyone’s alley. If you tend to fall asleep in any horror film that doesn’t involve at least three decapitations, keep moving. But if you’d like to see the spiritual opposite of Vampires Suck or Transylmania, well, you’ve found your movie. Enter freely, and of your own will.
- The film was released in Europe under Polanski’s preferred title, Dance of the Vampires. To his disgust, MGM wanted to market it in the U.S. as a madcap farce, so they retitled it, trimmed footage, and added an animated intro. (This is evident in the theatrical trailer, which shows just about every physical comedy gag in the movie accompanied by “wacky” sound effects.) The film’s full American title is The Fearless Vampire Killers; Or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck. Interestingly, while American DVD releases retain the revised title, the version they show is Polanski’s original rather than the edited version.
- Polanski and Sharon Tate began a relationship during the filming of The Fearless Vampire Killers, culminating in their marriage the following year. Sadly, Tate’s performance in this and other films is overshadowed by her eventual fate: in 1969, while 8 1/2 months pregnant and with Polanski away working on a film, Tate and several houseguests were murdered by the followers of Charles Manson. Though openly disdainful of marriage and fidelity, Polanski was reportedly devastated and has described Tate’s murder as the event that changed his outlook from cheery to eternally pessimistic and dissatisfied with life.
- On the MGM logo at the start, the lion mascot Leo transforms into a green vampire with fangs dripping blood.
- They’re both rail thin, but I’m not exactly buying that Alfred fits through a window while the Professor, who looks like he weighs about ten pounds soaking wet, gets stuck. Silly old bear.
- How is it that every single vampire hunter in every damn movie carries crucifixes by the armful, but not a single one ever wears a cross around his neck?
- For a scene in which only the human characters can be seen in a mirror in a hall full of vampires, an exact replica of the room was constructed on the other side of the “mirror,” and body doubles were used.
[Magda brandishes cross]
Yoyneh: Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!
Alfred: Maybe there is no crypt in this castle.
Abronsius: Don’t be foolish! A castle without a crypt is like a unicorn without a horn.
Abronsius: What are you driveling about? How can you tell me she’s dead when you don’t know?
Alfred: The coffin, it’s for her.
Abronsius: No no no no no. They are still working on it. If she were dead, she would already be in it like one of them, screened from the light.
Alfred: She’s not dead?
Abronsius: Work it out for yourself. You may be sure they’ll make her last as long as they can. It’s their idea of “fun.”
Alfred: In that case, who is the coffin for?
Abronsius: Oh, for her or… [points to Alfred, then self]
von Krolock: Keep your surprise for later on, you’ll need it.
von Krolock: A year ago… a year ago exactly on this same night, we were assembled here in this very room. I, your pastor, and you, my beloved flock. With hopefulness in my heart, I told you then that with Lucifer’s aid we might look forward to a more succulent occasion. Cast back your minds — there we were, gathered together, gloomy and despondent, around that single meager woodcutter.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
- The Monster Squad
- The Lost Boys